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Thu, 29 Apr 2004 10:47:10 -0000
"L. Fersen" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I hope this email finds you well. It’s good to hear from you, as always. We are all in reasonably good health, thanks so much for inquiring.
Gustav has worked out the details of the deal with the local investors here, and at this point I have every reason to believe that the negotiations will go smoothly. The main office is being updated regularly with our progress. Wish us luck!
I hope everybody is doing well at de la Saigne. It is always a comfort for me to look back and remember those few months that I have spent in your offices. I look forward to the time when we shall be able to see each other again.
In the meantime, I hope that you are taking care of yourself.
I read his email with some satisfaction and decided to postpone my reply until I had carefully thought out my response. For someone who normally went about her letter writing in as short a time as she could manage, this reticence I was noting in myself was quite a novelty. But then, this correspondent really wasn’t just anyone now, was he?
After switching off the computer, I got up and shrugged into my coat. Stepping out of my office and into the reception area, I announced to Rosalie that I was going out to lunch with my sisters. Rosalie understood immediately and replied that she would call me if it were necessary for me to come back to the office. In the meantime, my schedule was clear until two that afternoon.
The last Thursday of every month, usually the most benign of my hectic days in the office, was reserved for meeting the Sisters for lunch. Marie Anne, Clotilde, Hortense, Catherine and Josephine (by order of seniority) would usually call ahead of time to set the meeting place and they would tolerate no excuse in not attending these little reunions.
By the time I turned eighteen, they had all finished their schooling, and each of these elder sisters had married within a few years of each other. Needless to say, Father had been most satisfied with their arrangements. They had gone so early from me that I had not really missed their daily presence in the house. To make up for their absence, they had devised this monthly get-together to talk about family matters, work, and just about anything that needed some in-depth discussion.
Sophisticated and witty, up to date with all the latest trends and goings-on in town, my sisters were also my chief information source to a great deal of matters not related to work.
Today, they had chosen a restaurant within walking distance from the office to facilitate my joining them. They were already perusing the menus by the time I arrived and discussing the latest bestseller that they were reading, a historical romance by a novelist with the unlikely name of Vanessa d’Or.
“What do you mean you haven’t read it?” Josephine asked me, shocked. “You’re probably the only person in Paris who hasn’t read that book!”
“Is it really all that good?” I asked skeptically as my eyes traveled down the menu.
“It is! I shall send you a copy immediately,” replied my sister.
“If you like,” I said indifferently.
“And how is Lulu?” I asked my eldest sister after we made our orders. Among my married sisters, only Anne Marie had produced a child—the precocious, ten year old chatterbox named Lulu.
At the mere mention of my niece, Anne Marie’s elegant shoulders sagged and she sighed. “Impossible, as always,” she said. “Can I borrow André more often? He ought to be able to keep that child under control.”
I gave a wry smile. “I doubt if André can tear himself away from his toxic schedule right now, but why don’t you ask him?” I said. It was true that Lulu loved André’s company more than anyone else’s, although I was not sure if André reciprocated the feeling.
“We missed you at Madame du Deffand’s last cocktail party,” remarked Josephine as we started with our salad, “and Père had said that you were going to attend!”
“Duty called,” I lied succinctly. “I had to attend to office obligations at the last minute.”
Clotilde shook her head in disgust. “Couldn’t you have sent somebody else to look after the office on Sundays?” she asked.
I merely smiled and decided not to comment on something that was quite obvious to everyone present.
“Well, there is another du Deffand affair coming up in a month’s time. A masque,” said Hortense. “There, now you know it well ahead of time. I will forward you the date once it’s finalized. Make sure you don’t schedule anything then. There shall be no more excuses for not attending, Françoise!”
“And I have ensured that she will not have any this time!” announced Anne Marie grandly as she turned to me. “Did you receive that package I sent over to your place a few days ago?”
“Yes, I did,” I said and continued digging into my salad.
There was a pause. “And--?” prompted my eldest sister.
“Oh. So sorry. Most rude of me,” I said as I touched the tip of my napkin to a corner of my mouth. “Thank you.”
“Do you like it?”
I had to admit that when I lifted my sister’s gift out of its box, the elegant lines and texture of the clothing had been most impressive. It was sleek and stylish, the pristine white material soft and gauzy, with edges set off in blue patterned silk. Very tasteful and clearly of superior make. The only problem about it was that it was—
“A gown?” I said flatly. “Why on earth would you want to send me a gown?”
“It’s not just a gown!” cried Anne Marie in outrage. “It’s the latest from Valentino couture! It’s not even in stores yet!”
“Why on earth would you want me to wear a Valentino gown?” I asked implacably.
“Oh, Françoise!” cried Clotilde in exasperation, “you simply cannot let that small incident in your childhood limit your taste in clothes!”
I stopped chewing and stared at her blankly.
“Clotilde’s right, you know,” said Catherine sympathetically as she placed a hand lightly on my arm. “After all, it’s been almost twenty years, dear.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” I said slowly.
“Why, your abhorrence in wearing skirts, Françoise! What else are we talking about?” Marie Anne said. “Everybody knows why you stopped wearing skirts the very first night you tried on a gown.”
“Everybody trips over long gowns, Françoise,” said Hortense. “That shouldn’t make you stop wearing them, though.”
“You all very well know that I did not trip!” I cried as I felt that my sisters were beginning their favorite game—ganging up on me. “The skirts got in my way!”
Upon hearing my words, my sisters averted their gaze and murmured a general, noncommittal reply.
Well, my words were not entirely truthful. To be fair, both my legs and the skirts had equal faults in the matter. Falling down the stairs in that damn gown when I was fourteen and ending up with bruised elbows and knees would more accurately describe what had happened on the night of my sister Josephine’s debut in the mansion. Luckily, the incident had occurred at the grand staircase when no guests had been around to see it as they had all been gathered in the ballroom.
Deeply mortified, I had hurtled back into my rooms as soon as I could pick myself up and changed into one of the suits that I was more familiar with despite all of Nanny’s hysterical objections. From then on everybody had assumed that the incident had been the main reason why I refused to wear skirts of any kind, although I would put it down more to a general notion that dresses were inconvenient obstacles.
The family, though, had decided to rank the incident as among the most memorable in its annals. If they wished to annoy me, all they needed to do was to dredge up that particular incident like what my sisters were doing now.
“What we’re only saying is that you give skirts a chance!” Josephine sighed. “Is that too much to ask? Besides, you have such long, shapely legs. It would be a shame to keep them covered all the time.”
“Listen well,” I said curtly, “even if I were to find somebody to fall madly in love with and even if I were to marry him—which is totally out of the picture right now—he will not be able to induce me to wear a skirt to our wedding.”
“That’s what they all say while they haven’t met that particular someone yet,” said Marie Anne knowingly as she turned the conversation deftly around.
“That is so true!” piped in Clotilde. “Wouldn’t it be so exciting if Ms. Hoity-Toity here were to eat her words one of these days?”
Despite everything, I had to smile at my sisters’ tactics.
“By the way, speaking of André earlier on,” said Hortense. “Madame Dubois had been asking about him. She must have met him at the de Brun wedding and he had been, in her own words, very ‘vaillant’.”
I lowered my fork. “What does that mean?” I found myself demanding.
“Knowing André, he had probably asked her to dance,” Hortense said. “He’s always been very gallant, but I think you ought to tell him Madame Dubois should not be given more attention than she actually merits, otherwise, he would never hear the end of it from her.”
Taken aback with what I had just heard, I tried to recall the details of the de Brun wedding dinner. Come to think of it, I had not seen André after he had led Rosalie away to dance that night. I had slipped away very soon afterward without bothering to notify the two so as not to spoil their rare night of fun.
And Madame Dubois really was an inveterate gossip. Her late husband had been a major stockholder at de Brun, which would explain why she would be present in the major functions of the company. In her forties but still attractive, there was much talk about Madame’s various affairs and relationships all over Paris, though how much of it was true and how much was fabricated by Madame Dubois herself remained to be verified.
Still, it seemed ridiculous to think of André getting mixed up in her company.
“I’m sure he knows what she’s like, and since when is dancing with anyone at a wedding dinner considered a crime?” I said as I made a show of calmly resuming with my salad. “Besides, André can take care of himself.”
I had voiced the last phrase with a certainty that I was far from feeling at that moment. Perhaps I needed to talk to André just a little bit.
My sisters looked at each other dubiously but decided to let the matter drop.
“And how is work coming along?” asked Catherine.
“The same as always,” I replied. “Very toxic.”
What I did not bother mentioning to my sisters was how chaotic everything could be at work. Take for instance the quarterly meeting that I just had with the operations managers two weeks ago.
True to André’s dire predictions, Alain de Soisson had been impossible, as usual, but Alain’s tactics had not roused my ire that day. Instead, it had been one of the other operational managers, Nicholas de la Motte, who had stirred it up by failing to put in an appearance at the meeting.
“Whatever does he mean that he’s on vacation?” I remembered snapping at the nervous assistant manager that de la Motte had sent to fill his place. “I did not send that notice for this important meeting one month in advance, with specific instructions that all operational managers be present in person, only to have him say he’s on vacation at the last minute!”
As expected, the assistant manager had been toast as I went through his area’s quarterly financial reports with him. The endorsements—if there were any made—given to him by de la Motte were inconsistent and in shambles, and his increasing anxiety as he tried to assemble the reports into a semblance of order only had the unfortunate effect of adding to my mounting impatience. I finally had to put him out of his misery by saying that I wanted to see de la Motte within the week before I moved on to the other operational managers.
“The utter nerve!” I fumed as I stalked out of the boardroom after three exhausting hours of the meeting.
Rosalie hurried to keep up with me as we made our way back to my office upstairs. “I really don’t understand how he could be absent!” she almost wailed. “Apart from your written directive, he did confirm on the phone that he was coming.”
“It’s not your fault, Rosalie,” I said firmly. It had been clear that de la Motte’s absence was intentional.
That Nicholas de la Motte had been nothing but trouble from the very start. I had protested against his appointment as an operations manager in the company on the basis that several other applicants had better work profiles than he could possibly show, but it seemed that his appointment had been secured in the higher rungs of office at de Brun.
As much as I hated to admit it, these anomalies did tend to crop up every now and then in the companies. In this aspect de Brun was really no different from other multinational corporations, with their undercurrents of compromises and office intrigues lurking just beneath the smooth surface of things.
No matter. There were ways to deal with these kinds of people.
As we reached the office, though, the day’s drama was not yet at an end. We found Alain there at the reception area, talking to a frowning André. It was actually very interesting to see that even André, normally so sanguine in temperament, was having difficulty reining in his temper when Alain was concerned. But then, Alain did have this unfortunate knack in annoying people.
“—you mean to say that The Cardinal cannot even exert that much influence to get me in for five minutes?” I heard him saying with undisguised, scornful amusement.
That brief phrase made absolutely no sense to me. “The meeting has ended downstairs, Alain,” I cut in, and judging from the way they both turned sharply to our direction, it was pretty obvious that neither had seen us coming.
“Hmph. Indeed it has, mon Capitan, though I think you will be interested in a little something that I wish to say to you,” said Alain with his usual sarcasm, “forgive my having to come up to your office. It certainly is not meant for anybody else’s ears.”
I opened the door to my office. “Inside,” I ordered Alain tersely. “You’ve got one minute.”
But what he did have to say then took longer than a minute, and it was to return time and again to plague me in the coming days. It had been most disturbing, but now was not the time to ponder or rage on it. Clearly some investigation was in order, and concrete evidence had to be obtained. Proof should come soon enough.
As I sat in the small, comforting circle of my chattering sisters, I felt as though I could forget all my cares for a while. There would be plenty of time to worry about everything as soon as I stepped back in the office.
After lunch, my sisters decided to do some shopping and I had to get back to the office. André was back from his morning errands, and he followed me into my suite.
“Here are the things you have requested for Thursday,” he said, laying down the papers that I had asked him to look up in preparation for a dinner meeting on the day he had mentioned, “and I was able to secure the tickets you wanted for the theater on Friday night. Saturday’s appointments are likewise fixed and ready.”
“Incredible!” I said, shaking my head as I grinned at him. “Ever the dependable André, I can see. I was afraid they had meant it when they said the tickets were sold out.”
“I have my ways,” André said enigmatically. He must have seen
me eyeing the last folder he had in his hands, for he looked down and said, “Oh.
This one’s a different matter.”
”What is it?” I asked nevertheless.
“Your father was very much taken with the painting you bought,” he answered. “He asked me to do a bit of research into it.”
“He did?” I asked, interested. “And what have you found out so far?”
“I haven’t got very far yet,” André confided. “Needless to say, my first step in tracing its origins is through Lasonne, the art dealer. But the painting has changed hands at least five times in the past thirty years and I’ve just started tracking these former owners down. I’ll update you when I’ve got more info.”
“All right. That would be great,” I said.
There was a pause as our gaze met and held for a moment.
“Is there anything else?” He finally asked.
Yes, there is, André…what were you doing dancing with Madame Dubois?
I looked away as I shook my head. “There’s nothing else. Thanks, André,” I opted to say instead.
After he left the office, I took to wondering how I could have hesitated in asking him the question that was already at the tip of my tongue. It was most uncharacteristic of me. For once, my frankness—which had not known restraint even in front of Fersen—had quite deserted me as I faced André.
Through the years, André had been the recipient of my honest, if somewhat blunt, questions and opinion on a number of things. Why would I hesitate now?
Perhaps it was because there never was a more ridiculous and inappropriate question to pose in front of someone. Who cared if André did dance with the woman? I really could not find anything wrong with a man asking a lady to dance at a wedding dinner.
Or perhaps I was still finding it hard to believe that André could possibly have any serious designs where Madame Dubois was concerned. And even if he did have any serious intentions, it would be difficult for me to pry into his personal affairs.
André had never ventured to break into my privacy. It was only right that I respect his. After all, how would I feel if he were to meddle into affairs that I would consider personal?
And so the matter was settled. Perhaps I could bring myself to say something discreet about Madame Dubois at a more opportune time in the future…
Unfortunately, I was to learn more of that affair of André’s through direct observation in the coming days. In less than twenty-four hours after lunching with my sisters, a serious crisis had developed in the company.
At around one in the morning, just when I was drifting off into an uneasy sleep in my flat, my cell phone rang.
The news came from no less than Father himself. Louis de Brun, after the usual night of drinking with his cronies in his estate, had been taken to hospital after developing severe chest pains and shortness of breath shortly after midnight.
“The doctors say a heart attack is in progress. He has been admitted directly into intensive care, Françoise,” said Papa. “Auguste has of course been contacted and he is on his way back from Greece. Right now though, Philippe is temporarily in charge of matters.”
“Is it really that bad?” I asked, feeling my fingers ache from gripping the phone so tightly.
“I am in an emergency meeting at de Brun even as we speak,” answered Papa, who was a member of the board of directors. “I am sure they will be calling you for a meeting first thing today.”
Sure enough, I received a call at daybreak from Philippe de Dupont, a senior officer in the main company and Louis’ cousin, requesting for a set of urgent meetings at de Brun for all directors of the various companies beginning at seven that morning.
I immediately called Rosalie and André to accompany me.
The meetings that took place one after the other that day were a tumult of faces and noise as the board of directors and senior officers fielded off questions and issued instructions to directors, investors and other groups that had gathered.
By midmorning, an ashen faced and stricken Auguste arrived with Antoinette. Just weeks into their honeymoon in the Mediterranean, they were now at the center of all the emergency plans that had arisen and it was understandable to see them looking so overwhelmed. There was no time to talk to them individually. After the meetings, they were to proceed to the hospital, where the ailing Louis was still struggling in the ICU. The doctors had stabilized him for now, but there was no telling what could happen in the next few hours.
We were given a short break as the board members moved on to meet with the major stockholders. As we filed out of the room, I saw Madame Dubois enter along with other investors. Instantly, I turned to André and it was evident that he had spotted her as well; I saw him nod at her direction politely. Madame Dubois broke into a small smile upon seeing us and came over.
“Françoise. How have you been?” she said as way of greeting, but her gaze was on the man just behind me.
I murmured a general reply, and before I could say anything more I was called out to join a small huddle among investors whose chief interests lay in de la Saigne Industries. They wanted assurances that the company was not going to be affected so much if the worst was to happen, and it took a while to convince them that de la Saigne was probably not going to see any major changes anytime soon regardless of what happened.
After that small meeting came another one. Turning to Rosalie, I said, “we have better get those accounts I mentioned ready by this week. You can ask André for assistance. He knows them more than anyone else. By the way, where is he?”
“Strange,” Rosalie said as she turned to scan the hallway. “He was here talking to Madame Dubois just a while ago.”
Of course, I could have asked Rosalie to go look for him. Why I decided to go instead was something that I could not quite explain even to myself. Telling Rosalie that I needed to go to the ladies’ room, I set off toward the hallways.
In the frenzied excitement of people gathering in the suites of the expansive conference floor of the building, my footsteps were muted as I strode through the quiet corridors lined in thick carpet. There were very few people around in these areas, as most were gathered in the main suites. Nevertheless, I could hear a murmur of voices not far off and, turning the corner, came upon a scene that I was somehow already half-expecting.
It chilled my blood nonetheless.
There was André talking to Madame Dubois, who was resting a hand lightly on his chest. He turned quickly as I came upon them. His face was frozen as he saw me pause and stare at them. Madame Dubois merely turned unhurriedly to regard me.
“Françoise—“ he began as he stepped away from Madame Dubois.
But I was not looking at him anymore.
“Madame Dubois,” I said coldly, nodding at her direction. “I see my personal assistant has been keeping you from your meeting. I’m afraid I may have to borrow him for a while. Our own meeting is about to start.”
“Françoise. Listen--” he said hurriedly as he followed me down the corridor and I knew he was going to try to explain things to me. For some reason, I could not allow him to continue.
I turned to him and remarked, “Your tie’s askew.”
As he hastily set his necktie to rights, I continued, “You don’t need to make excuses. What you do and who you socialize with during your spare time is none of my concern. But please do remember that you are my assistant during working hours! You cannot invite rumor and speculation this way!”
“We were just talking!” he said as we proceeded down the empty corridor.
“Really?” I answered coldly. “What could you possibly have to say to each other to have her lay her hand on your chest?”
André’s lips parted in astonishment. “She was just starting to—“
“Enough!” I said as we neared the boardroom, knowing that the harshness in my voice was totally unwarranted. “I don’t care who started it! You should have known better!”
All throughout the meeting, the last for the day at the main office, I could not help but notice how my mind would wander off, fuming, to replay that corridor scene over and over again. Truly, André had been so careless! I was only too thankful that I had been the one to get to the scene first and not somebody else.
André tried one more time after the meeting to get to me.
“Françoise, give me a minute and hear me out!” he said as soon as we got back to my office. He followed me inside my suite, leaving Rosalie to her typing outside. Then, seeing how I was being obstinately silent, he ground out, “You’re being unreasonable!”
Upon hearing his words, I slowly leaned back onto my seat. With a sigh, I felt the anger drain out of me. Was I really being unreasonable? Perhaps it had been the shock of the morning’s events that had thrown me off balance for me to be reacting this way.
From the way I had thrashed André, one would think I was almost…hurt. Really, it was quite absurd.
“Look, André,” I said softly. “I’m not mad. Really, why would I be? I’m just concerned. I mean it when I say you need to be extra careful with women like Madame Dubois. She’s a company figure. You, on the other hand, represent my office. People will not take kindly to the implications, and they will always pin the blame on you. I don’t see how giving you that advice is unreasonable.”
“You’re being unreasonable because you don’t want to hear me out!” He said squarely. “I am not carrying on with her! We were just talking!”
“Okay. I hear you loud and clear!” I said, having had just about enough of this tiresome conversation. “And all I’m saying is that you be careful with your dealings with her. There. I’ve said it. Now can we drop the matter?”
There was a short, deadly silence.
“You still don’t believe me, do you?” He asked quietly.
Without giving him a reply, I opened the files on my desk to start the day’s work. I refused to look at him again.
At five o’ clock that afternoon, despite all the measures taken by his doctors, Louis de Brun went into cardiorespiratory arrest. No amount of anticoagulants could have stopped the second, fatal heart attack from taking place. Several attempts were made to revive him, but he had slipped away.
Life was certainly strange and full of irony. Then and there, the powerful man who had been larger than life, whose decisions governed the everyday running of the corporation for more than thirty years, was suddenly no more.
The days and weeks following the elaborate and well-publicized funeral unfolded in a frenzied pace as the company heads rushed to cover the gap Louis had vacated. The board of directors had been meeting almost everyday as endorsements were made to ease the transition of power to Auguste, the new head of the companies.
It was clear that some major changes were to be seen quite soon in the companies, the earliest of which was communicated to me through a startling message. While the decision was actually pretty sound, I wondered what person could have suggested it to Auguste who, I was sure, would not have thought of it by himself.
The e-mail message that I received read:
Mon, 7 Jun 2004 20:13:18 -0000
"L. Fersen" <email@example.com>
Returning to France
I am sure you will be hearing about this bit of news soon, but I would like to be the first to break it to you. I have just received word from the head office asking if I would consider transferring to France and I have accepted. I understand that they are revamping their financial department and they need to form a new team of financial advisors.
Gustav has also been contacted regarding my transfer. Since he has got things very much under control here in Sweden, he admits there really is no reason for him not to let me go.
I shall be finishing my endorsements here very soon, and will arrive in Paris on the 27th of June. I look forward to seeing you again, my friend.
But then, one need not think too deeply who was responsible for recommending Lars Fersen to the de Brun post. I could think of one person, and one person alone.
Definition of terms:
Vaillant- valiant; gallant
To Be Continued…
pubblicazione sul sito Little Corner del luglio 2006
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